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Cities’ Climate Change Lawsuit Against Big Oil Dismissed

In the absence of federal action on climate change, some cities around the country have sued oil companies for costs incurred preparing for and responding to climate change crises. Now, that strategy is in question.

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next
Exhaust pipe.
A federal district judge in San Francisco ruled that oil companies aren't liable for damages to cities as a result of climate change.

In the absence of federal action on climate change, some cities around the country have devised a novel strategy—sue oil companies for costs incurred preparing for and responding to rising seas, fiercer storms, and so on. Now, that strategy is in question after a federal judge dismissed a suit brought by San Francisco and Oakland.

The dismissal came down yesterday from federal district judge William Alsup, who was hearing the case. In his ruling, he said, “The court will stay its hand in favor of solutions by the legislative and executive branches.”

The lawsuit was based on a part of law known as public nuisance, where plaintiffs can sue if public use of property is damaged or lost. Here’s John Schwartz, reporting for the New York Times:

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Earlier attempts use nuisance claims in lawsuits about climate change have been heard under federal law in cases such as American Electric Power v. Connecticut, but none have succeeded. In a unanimous 2011 decision, the Supreme Court said that the Clean Air Act displaced the federal common law of nuisance, leaving enforcement and regulation to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Under the Obama administration, the EPA had moved to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, a decision that was largely supported by the Supreme Court. That reinforced the EPA’s authority over climate change, but also made nuisance lawsuits more difficult at the federal level. As a result, oil companies had been pushing to get the case heard in federal rather than state courts.

Oil companies are relieved at the dismissal, echoing the judge’s decision that the courts are not the proper venue for addressing climate change.

That said, they’re not off the hook yet. Other lawsuits filed by San Mateo and Marin Counties and the San Diego suburb of Imperial Beach were sent to the state courts by another federal judge, also in the San Francisco district.

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Photo credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory